Scripture

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Simchat Torah – an affair of the heart

Why Simchat Torah is an affair of the heart

By Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

This blog has been taken from an article written in 2012, published by The Jewish Chronicle. Simchat Torah is the Jewish holiday that celebrates and marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. Its Hebrew name translates as “rejoicing with/of the Torah”

At Simchat Torah, death and life are linked by just two beats of the heart. Our Torah reading cycle reaches its final episode, the death of Moses. A single heartbeat later, we are once again “In the beginning”, as we restart the cycle, affirming life through Bereshit, the Creation of the world.

This beating of the heart is the seam that welds together the end and the beginning: our tradition points out that the final letter of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is lamed and the first letter of Bereshit (Genesis) is bet, which in Hebrew together spell lev, meaning heart.

We celebrate the Torah cycle by re-enacting circles in our customary rituals. We carry the Torah, dancing and singing, circling our synagogues seven times in hakafot, processions .[1] Our circling is reminiscent of the seven circles at a wedding, the joining together of a couple which continues the work of Creation, completed in seven days.

The symbols of Simchat Torah are direct and free of distraction. We cast aside the intense inward focus of the High Holy Days. Our focus is joy, fasting rescinding into the past. We also leave behind the trappings of Succot that were our companions for a week — no lulav, no fragrant etrog.[2]

We suspend the yearning for Zion and lavish no attention on the Land of Israel. Our focus is unashamedly narrow: only one subject, only one symbol — arteries scribed in black ink on parchment, forming our Torah.

The emphatic change of mood contrasts sharply with the intensity of the Days of Repentance and with the sense of vulnerability engendered by sitting in makeshift shacks during Succot. It is a moment of release: we face the magnificence of taking all the Torah scrolls out of the ark at the same time, the parading of the Torah scrolls to sing and dance with them.

Simchat Torah affirms that our introspection surrounding the Days of Repentance leads us to joy rather than to melancholy. Sometimes we may need to draw on hidden resources of strength to be so upbeat and to dance and sing but this is the command: to be joyous.

We parade our Torah scrolls, which are our real riches, and proudly place them on show. It is the Torah that is honoured, that is kissed, turned to, passed lovingly round. The rabbis and synagogue dignitaries mostly play second or third fiddle.

The interwoven moment of endings and beginnings, the heartbeat between death and life ends this period of the year and shoves us forward: we may have looked inwards, repented, made our peace with ourselves and with our own understanding of our Creator, but that is not enough.

Moses’s journey may have ended just short of entering the Promised Land but the shove towards creation and re-creation (not recreation) means that we cannot rest. We have prayed, fasted, sung, but that isn’t it. We aren’t let off the hook. Let us celebrate: our circle is still turning.

Until this month, Laura Janner-Klausner was the Senior Rabbi for Reform Judaism

[1] A ritual in which people walk or dance around a specific object, generally in a religious setting. The word literally translates as “to circle” or “going around”.

[2] The Lulav and Etrog are the four species of plants which are held together and waved in ritual of Sukkot.

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Sharing Scripture – a Bahai and a Christian encounter the Gospel of John

A Guest Blog by Allan Forsyth

640px-Gospel_of_johnIf you want to build understanding between faiths then you have to build understanding
between hearts. I’ve often thought that the best way to describe faith is as a love affair.
Beyond their own particular theology, people of faith, it seems to me, are primarily motivated
by a deep love for something which is ultimately transcendent and indescribable. Over the
past few weeks I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to share in a dialogue with someone from
a different faith background to explore this.

Margaret is a neighbour of mine who moved in across the road a few years ago. As we got
to know each other better we discovered that we had a shared interest in the Divine and our
friendship has flourished. Margaret’s faith background is Christian and mine is Baha’i. It
became apparent to me that Margaret was an independent thinker with a deep knowledge of
and love for the Bible and she described her relationship with Christ in a way that intrigued
me. I had some knowledge of the Bible but had never studied it. I was conscious that if there
was one book that speaks directly to the meaning of Jesus’ life, it was probably the Gospel
of John and so I asked Margaret if we could study it together. She was delighted to do so
and so for the past 7 or 8 weeks we have been meeting together for an hour on
Wednesdays and Saturdays. The first few weeks were on Skype but then we were able to
move to the garden (on good days and with social distancing).

The experience of reading sacred scripture and then reflecting together on it has been very
powerful for both of us. Progress through the book has been slow but I now realise that that
was unavoidable as we have no deadline and almost every verse of the text generates
substantial comment. The study is largely led by Margaret because she has a much more
extensive knowledge of the text and the context of the whole Bible. After reading 2 or 3
verses she will generally make comments and I will then ask questions and contribute
comment. The conversation then often develops in exploring the implications of what we
have read in our understanding and our reading of the world today.

So what have I learned and what questions are still unfolding? I have learned that John is
direct and unambiguous about who Jesus is – his uniqueness, divinity and his eternal nature
;that his call to his contemporaries was rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and that he points
towards a fulfilment yet to come. An example of this and a passage that really struck me is
John 3:14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be
lifted up..”. I was fascinated to learn that this is both a reference to Numbers 21:9 and a
pointer to Jesus’ crucifixion and the healing and new life to humanity that that would bring. I
would not have been able to glean this from a study by myself. A profound moment during
the study occurred when we shared the well-known verse from Matthew – “For where two or
three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – and realised that that was exactly what we
were doing.

My own perspective on the text is greatly influenced by the Baha’i commentaries on the
Bible which are unequivocal in their recognition of Jesus but which point to a more spiritual
rather than literal interpretation of many key passages. This has presented a challenge to us
reaching a common understanding at times. However, our dialogue is based on a strong
friendship and a mutual respect for each other’s faiths and this has allowed both of us to
gain new insights. It seems we have reached a stage beyond “agreeing to differ” into
“agreeing to continue to explore”.

Currently in the middle of chapter 7, I find our studies refreshing, challenging and
invigorating and I look forward to every meeting. We have tentatively planned to move next
to the Revelation of St. John which probably shows a confidence verging on the foolhardy. It
has stimulated my own wish to deepen more on the sacred scriptures of all faiths. However
rather than just picking up the Qu’ran or the Guru Granth Sahib, I now might seek out a
Muslim or Sikh to study it with.

In over 27 years of stimulating and varied interfaith activity, this has been the most profound
and exciting experience I have taken part in. I think it points to the next stage that is required
if faith communities are to fulfil their potential to contribute to the real peace that humanity
cries out for – to work together to understand each other and find the common threads that
can be woven together in common purpose.

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